Not long ago, Noël Coward was ubiquitous. Why is nobody marking the 50th anniversary of his death?
Weeks away from the 50th anniversary of Noël Coward’s death, I fear for the endurance of his influence on our culture, both as a writer and a performer. I suspect that many young people have hardly heard of him, yet when I was growing up, in the last years of his life, he was ubiquitous – his films often on television, his plays frequently revived in the West End, and throughout the 1960s he could be found in cabaret performing his enormously popular songs. Yet there are signs that he is now becoming rather overlooked. A dive into YouTube shows there have been a mere 6,600 views of his 1935 song Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington, which to his generation was as well known as anything by the Beatles 30 years later, Matters improve slightly with the 157,000 views of Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Coward was always at his best as a singer-songwriter when engaged in mockery. For his fellow Britons who found other things to complain about once the struggle against Hitler was over he wrote There Are Bad Times Just Around The Corner (233,000 views), and for those who felt the enemy were being treated too harshly, he let rip with Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans (414,000 views). One either likes his unique, excessively mannered singing voice, or one does not, but it is indisputable that there are elements of brilliance in these songs. Today’s bright young things should seek them out, and listen. Although his revues were beloved, Coward’s name was made with his plays. Some are now exceptionally dated and work better as historical documents than as entertainments, however it is a pity that the West End theatre listings for the coming months show no sign of marking his anniversary by putting one on. But then at the moment a large section of the theatrical world seems determined to drive away its normal clientele by forcing on them an obsession with identity politics and the culture wars. Coward, whose homosexuality might have made him a hero of this woke-infested generation of directors and actors, seems to have nothing to say to them. The Vortex, his 1924 play about an ageing nymphomaniac and her drug-addicted son (his addiction thought to be a mask for his sexuality) might have been just the job, but it has long seemed unduly starched. With the wokeists determined to make people suspicious of Britain’s past, Cavalcade (1931), an unashamedly patriotic celebration of our history, would be a non-starter, and presumably his acclaimed comedies of manners such as Hay Fever (1925), Private Lives (1930) and Design for Living (1932) appear too class-ridden, elitist and white. But when this mad phase of cultural self-hatred passes in Britain – as it will – perhaps they will be back. Until then, one can curl up with Coward’s films, one or two of which are among the most significant in British cinema. He played an important, and rather secret, role in the war effort, but its public manifestation was In Which We Serve (1942), allegedly based on his friend Lord Louis Mountbatten and the sinking of his ship HMS Kelly. The film has its risible moments – not least with Coward trying to look and sound like a naval officer rather than a denizen of drawing-room comedies – but as a propaganda exercise it was a triumph, doing what such films had to do: to contrast the resolve, decency and civility of the British with the bestiality and wickedness of the enemy. But there are three other films, all of which he wrote and in none of which he appeared, that seal his cinematic greatness. The first, This Happy Breed (1944), is as good a depiction of lower-middleclass life between the wars as any student of history could wish to see. The second, from 1945, is Blithe Spirit, which, with its sophistication of premise, dialogue and wit, looks like the invention of post-war British cinema; the third, from the same year, Brief Encounter, is possibly the most famous British film of its era. All were directed by David Lean, who himself became part of Coward’s massive cultural legacy. “The Master” may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but he was touched by genius and embodied an era. Fifty years on, he deserves not just respect, but revival.